Orderly Disorder: A 40-Minute Whirlpool Trip That Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker Cordially Invites All of You To

An English program notes prepared for Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker’s “MS. BERSERKER ATTTTTACKS!! ELEKTRO☆SCHOCK☆LUV☆LUV☆LUV☆SHOUT!!!!!” toured in Europe in 2013. 革命アイドル暴走ちゃんヨーロッパ公演のために書かれた英文プログラムノート。

Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker, a Japanese theatre company led by director Nikaidô Tôco, was founded in 2013. It was created shortly after she disbanded the Banana Gakuen Theatre Company (hereafter Banana), which became instantly popular upon its formation in 2008 and earned unanimous critical approval. However, Miss Berserker differs from other experimental performance groups owing to Nikaidô’s unique directional style, the company’s references to Japanese otaku culture, and its use of audience involvement.

Despite being a theatre major at her university, Nikaidô sharply denies she has learned anything important from college, and with good reason. The bizarre shows presented by Banana and Miss Berserker are the sort of performances that conservative theatre educators would not acknowledge as legitimate theatre. Each show is an exercise in veritable chaos. During these performances, fifty hyper-excited men and women in school or military uniforms dance and shout to the deafeningly loud music sampled and remixed from Japanese pop—most of which is either hit songs sung by all-girl idol groups, such as AKB48, or popular anime signature tunes. These songs are belted out while performers make repeated forays to the front of the stage and throw liquids and slimy objects into the auditorium.

If your assumption about the Japanese people is that they are gentle and polite, that perception would have been instantly shattered after witnessing one of the Banana’s shows. The performers were berserkers, frenzied warriors, who not only took center stage but also occupied the whole theatre as they yelled barbarically and incoherently; they were revolutionaries, defying the established notions of what theatrical performances should be and what sort of relationships performers should build with their audiences. These unique performers will also appear in the new, aptly named, Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker’s shows.

But were and are they really revolutionaries? Some might think so after experiencing such a wild and crazy show. However, the performers’ motions are not as unstructured as they seem; in fact, they are carefully choreographed. The gestures of the cast members are so controlled and disciplined that, some would argue, their uncannily precise mechanical movements are reminiscent of fascist marches—perhaps even North Korea’s mass games. Unlike those in Living Theatre and many other legendary avant-garde companies active in the late 1960s and 70s, Miss Berserker’s members do not seem, at first glance, to be enjoying uninhibited freedom in their performances. Just as fascist marches and mass games in North Korea represent a single dictator’s will and commands, Miss Berserker’s performances are similarly under the rigorous quality control of director Nikaidô. Although cast members can freely bring in choreography, costumes, and props they think fit for the ready-made music during the rehearsal periods, Nikaidô demands that cast members unerringly reproduce the complex patterns and sequences—which she alone composes and coordinates—once performances have begun. In this sense, the performers are dancing and singing robots, merely repeating what they are programmed to do.

Still, despite their regimented movements, the cast members’ transcendental jubilance while performing seems to justify Nikaidô’s exacting method. After all, Miss Berserker’s performers are not so much “artists” who are supposed to express themselves as they are participants in a theatrical rite. They are contributors who share common values and want to achieve a collective ecstasy through Nikaidô’s meticulously prescribed protocol. Furthermore, while many of Nikaidô’s performers are “regulars” who have often appeared in Banana’s productions, not all participants are company members. Instead, interested individuals audition and are selected each time. Despite the harshness of her approach, the competitiveness in auditions and the increasing number of new applicants demonstrates the firm support Nikaidô has received from her would-be cast members.

Another feature that distinguishes Miss Berserker from classical experimental performance groups is its constant references to and borrowings from Japanese otaku subculture, such as its use of anime and idol songs. Although back in the 1980s, otaku was a term referring to introverted geeks or fans who were only interested in their “childish” hobbies, the current trend of fantasizing about fictitious worlds—epitomized by “cosplay,” in which anime and manga fans assume the roles of their favorite fictional characters by wearing their costumes—has since become so powerful and pervasive among Japanese young people that otaku has lost many of its original negative connotations. The video clips, music, choreography, and costumes Miss Berserker employs are pastiches or brazen copies from numerous sources: TV anime programs, girls’ idol groups, comic books, young-adult literature (called “light novels” in Japan), and other well-known figures and characters that young Japanese audiences would instantly recognize. Nevertheless, these appropriated visual and aural images come and go so quickly that audiences can only grasp their phantasmagoric effects. Audiences too old or foreign to share such a collective memory of Japanese subculture in the late 90s through the present may not appreciate them as readily, though they can still enjoy their effects.

Audience involvement—rather than audience participation—is yet another key element understanding Miss Berserker. Structurally rigid, its performances begin with “preset”: a start-up session in which the cast brings props, sets the stage, does warm-ups, and introduces themselves. The preset is then followed by the first medley, after which the performers clean the messy stage and prepare for the second medley. When the second medley ends, the cast scatters into the auditorium seats and lessons in “nerd-style” cheerleading—otagei kôshukai—begin. Each performer gives hands-on lessons to several audience members and teaches them how to cheer for the idols on stage, just as idol otaku sing along, holler, and dance while waving handheld chemical light sticks (an important item for otagei) during concerts. After taking these lessons, audience members are told to repeat the formulaic gestural patterns and shout phrases and to join the performers in cheerleading for Miss Berserker’s primary idol: Nikaidô. By utilizing their own bodies and voices, the audience members get more deeply involved in what they are witnessing and are led to the final phase: “changing places.” During this phase, the cast invites audience members to come onstage, sometimes taking them by the hand.

After completing this transfer, the performers go to the auditorium and leave the audience members on stage doing what they like. This technique is designed to literally demonstrate that the cast and audience members are interchangeable. The “changing places” phase of Miss Berserker’s performances is designed to harken back to the genesis of theatre, the festivals and carnivals of old, during which every member of the community was a participant and enjoyed the temporary subversion of the established order. Consequently, in the Miss Berserker performances, audience members are expected to abandon any hope of taking a critical distance to observe what they see and hear; instead, they should just sing, dance, and enjoy the show with and as the members of the company. 

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